Smoky Scotch

Earth, air, water, fire -- the four elementscombine to create a fifth

I WENT to Islay for the peat and the sea. Seemingly alone among whisky lovers, I was fairly new to single-malt (unblended) Scotch whiskies, having attended a few tastings in this country that left me bewildered by their variety. Nonetheless, I was firm in my preferences: however many whiskies were on a table, I always gravitated toward the smoky, tarry fragrance of peat -- the compressed and partly fossilized loam of sphagnum moss and heather -- used to roast barley. What I most like is what makes Scotch single-malt most different from other whiskies. Irish almost never uses peat and usually includes unmalted as well as malted barley; rye and bourbon are based respectively on rye and corn and are also unpeated. Peat is what kept the most distinctive Scotch whiskies from acquiring a wide and appreciative audience until relatively late in this century.

Built into the harbor wall, Bowmore Distillery began operations in 1779, making it the oldest distillery on Islay

My goal was to connect the land, the sea, and the air to the taste in the bottle. To do this I wanted to walk through a bog and steep myself in the smoke of a peat fire. Islay, jutting into the Atlantic in the Inner Hebrides, west of the Scottish mainland, had it all, I was told: miles of peat bogs, malted barley hand-raked and roasted on site, and six working distilleries, most of them right on the sea -- resulting in the lip-smackingly salty aftertaste I had also come to crave.

Wood is said to account for as much as 50 to 70 percent of a whisky's flavor. Whether or not flavor components can be assigned precise percentages, the estimate is plausible, given that the flavors in most distilled spirits -- vanilla; the burnt sugar of caramel and toffee; coffee and chocolate; various spices, including cinnamon and ginger; and fruit, especially citrus -- are imparted chiefly by oak, and Scotch whisky must age at least three years in wood. In Scotland today that almost always means bourbon barrels made of American white oak, whose interiors have been charred to give color and strong vanilla and fruit flavors. By U.S. law bourbon barrels may be used only once, so when they arrive in Scotland, the oak has plenty of flavor and honey color left to give to the transparent "new-make" spirit as it ages. In the Scotland of the past century the wood was often European oak in the form of Spanish sherry barrels, which were shipped full and sold off to distillers after their contents had been bottled. Today Spanish law requires sherry makers to ship their product in bulk, and sherry barrels have become a rare and expensive prestige item for distillers who want the sweet, citrusy flavor and deep-mahogany color they give.

The flavor that makes me snap to attention seems like distilled smoke that yields to classic vanilla, orange, and toffee and returns to smoke for an aftertaste that can last for hours. I seek the initial slap of what some people call "motor oil" or "iodine" -- its technical name is phenol, and it is the chief chemical flavor component of peat smoke -- and then savor the more delicate flavors that appear. The shock of the first whiff followed by subtle, lingering pleasure in the mouth is like diving into a cold pond and then deciding you don't want to get out. I've never joined the quest for ever-hotter chili peppers, but hunting for peat has made me understand the addiction: once you acquire the taste, whisky seems incomplete without it. On Islay I found fire in high-proof "cask-strength" whiskies, and smoke everywhere.

MY bog craving, I learned when I arrived, was misplaced. Like mesquite wood chips, peat briquettes have no aroma until they burn. That's why the little dried clods of earth I had grabbed for and rubbed against my fingers at tastings in the United States were disappointingly odorless. The fault wasn't the age of the peat or the overseas shipping. It was the lack of a flame.

What is being smoked is a grain, and in my initial research I assumed that the variety of barley must be very important. Indeed, The Macallan, a distillery on the mainland, is proud to use only Golden Promise, a low-yielding old-fashioned barley that it pays farmers to grow -- and to grow only from a seed it has patented. (It may be reviving a nineteenth-century custom, but we are entering the genetically protectionist new millennium.) A heavy peating, as roasting barley over peat is called, will dominate the flavor of any variety -- and Islay distillers are the heaviest peaters of all.

In malting, barley is soaked in water and spread out on "malting floors" to germinate for several days, so that enzymatic action will convert starch to sugar as the seed prepares to sprout. Distillers want to stop the growth before a shoot emerges, so that the shoot won't get a chance to use any of the sugar they plan to convert to alcohol. Heat kills the germ and hardens the rubbery wet barley, allowing it to be crushed; the grist is mixed with water and cooked like a porridge at a gentle heat that is just right for yeast to ferment the sugar to alcohol. (The type of yeast the distiller chooses to add determines the presence and level of flowery flavor overtones.) At this point the distiller has made beer; malt whisky is distilled beer, as cognac is distilled wine.

Peat gives barley flavor, and coal and oil do not. Which fuel was used in which region of Scotland was long a question of economics. Soon after a canny liberalization of tax laws in 1823 gave moonshiners incentives to go legal, railroads made coal cheap and easy for most distillers to use in place of peat. Peat was in any case far less abundant than coal in many of the places distillers favored -- places chosen mainly for their proximity to good water, which is crucial to flavor and also needed for cooling stills quickly.

Islay had no cheap access to coal but never lacked for peat, which covers a quarter of the island's 246 square miles; strong and constant sea winds keep the green bluffs mostly barren. The island was never able to meet distillers' need for barley, and distillers today buy all their barley from other parts of Britain or even from other countries. Both sides of the plumb-straight road leading from the Islay airport to the island's two main villages -- a road that "floats" on peat nearly thirty feet deep -- are depopulated save for untended sheep, painted with primary-color blotches on their shoulders to identify their owners, and perhaps one or two of the few people who still earn their living cutting peat.

I never did get to cut peat -- a great frustration, given that Neil Wilson, whose is an excellent introductory guide to whisky-making, told me it was a "disturbingly sensual" experience. But I did hear about it from a forty-one-year-old Islay-born gamekeeper and whisky fancier named Donald James Macphee, whose father cut peat to supplement the coal he was allotted by his employer, the Caol Ila distillery, on the northeast coast of Islay. Macphee himself cut peat at the beginning of his career, because his annual coal allowance of four tons was not enough to keep his two fireplaces burning. Landowners concede the annual use of peat banks virtually free of charge, on condition that the cutter carefully replace the turf over the bottom of the trench, which is usually two to three feet deep. "I would go and take my wife and the two wee ones, and we'd sleep in the tent," Macphee told me. "The kids would play about, and we'd cut a rope of peat" briquettes, which would air-dry for several months before Macphee took them home. I had noticed brightly colored plastic bags along what looked like strip-mined fields, and had wondered that people would simply leave hard-earned fuel for weeks at a time until they found a convenient moment to carry it home. One explanation came from an Islay character and peat-cutter named Norman Campbell -- a small and weatherbeaten white-haired man who is reputed to have introduced disco music to Islay and to have adopted a stage name, Norrie Kimble, for karaoke performances that he gives for Japanese visitors on whisky pilgrimages. "I'd know before the day was out if you were looking around my place," he told me.

Campbell estimates that a dozen or so of Islay's 3,846 people still cut peat for a living, selling it to householders and distilleries. "There's plenty of peat for everybody, but they don't want the work," he told me. Nor do many young people want what little work the island offers. Macphee told me that perhaps 20 percent of his schoolmates have chosen to stay on Islay; distilleries don't provide enough jobs or enough pay to keep most graduates on the island. There is hope that high-tech industries will bring new employment and lower the average age in what is becoming a retirement community.

The scent of a peat fire is exhilarating, especially for those who have not had to cut their own fuel. I did achieve one dream by walking in a room-sized peat fire -- over one, to be exact, ankle-deep in germinated barley on a mesh floor that allowed the smoke from the furnace below to waft up through the grain. Kilns are architecturally the most distinctive parts of distilleries, with pagoda roofs whose chimneys encourage the recirculation of peat smoke. The kiln was comfortably warm; fires are kept low, so that the barley will be heated only enough to kill the germ and stop growth but not enough to halt enzymatic action. The peatiness of the barley, and thus of the whisky, depends on how much peat is used in the first twenty-four hours or so of the two days of drying. After a day of being smoked and dried, maltsters say, the barley is too hard to absorb any more flavorful smoke, so plain hot air finishes the job. The smell of peat smoke is unforgettable -- pungent and uplifting, somewhere between burning leaves and burning wood, with notes of wild heather and moss. After I had spent several minutes walking the length of the cozy chamber and admiring the Chinese-style wooden ceiling, my clothes reeked. "You smell like a kipper," my host said an hour later in the car. I couldn't have asked for a nicer compliment.

THIS immersion in "peatreek" (there's a word for it, as for nearly every aspect of making whisky) took place at the celebrated Laphroaig, one of three improbably beautiful distilleries in hidden coves near Port Ellen, on the southern coast of Islay -- perfect for unseen shipments, which explains why illicit distilling occurred there long before 1823. Laphroaig and its two close neighbors, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, all derive their water from sources that pass through peat, and the distilleries also heavily peat their barley. Although technically not the Islay whisky highest in phenols, Laphroaig has the strongest peatreek in the glass, possibly from the three phenols it says its seaweedy peat emits when burned -- different, it claims, from those of any other distillery. Whatever the reason, the blast of pure peat is strong, and is best appreciated in Laphroaig's youngest and least expensive whisky, its ten-year-old.

Every eight hours, barley is raked by hand with wooden "shiels" to
keep the temperature low

I fell hard for Lagavulin whisky, which seems to have a unique combination of potent peat and equilibrated smoothness. But I might have been swayed by the beauty of the distillery's low white stucco buildings set against dramatic rocks and the sea, or the simple painted-slat vernacular architecture of its offices, recently fitted into a former malting floor and reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century ship. Ardbeg, just down the road, has recently returned to active production after being periodically closed, and has won praise in the malt-whisky world, especially for its seventeen-year-old. The distillery's ambitious young managers are restoring its buildings with the help of the new parent company, which also owns the mainland single-malt distiller Glenmorangie, and have outfitted a particularly attractive visitors' center and café in the former malting barn. The pagoda is now a decorative roof, as it is at most of the island's distilleries -- only two actually use their kilns, and the rest buy barley peated to their specifications from the local Port Ellen malting company.

Ardbeg is lucky to have survived and to be making a name in the malt world: traditionally, more than 95 percent of its whisky was used in blends. Bunnahabhain, on the northeast coast, produces the lightest Islay whisky, and has very likely survived because of its utility in blends -- it is a defining component of The Famous Grouse, for years one of the most popular blended whiskies in Scotland. (A blended whisky may include as many as forty whiskies; more than half is usually neutral grain alcohol.) Bruichladdich, another lighter-style Islay distillery, has been "mothballed" since 1994, when it came under the control of the company that owns Jim Beam. The Port Ellen distillery, in the center of the busy port, where ferries come and go, many of them bearing barley for the malting company, closed for good in 1983.

This inactivity infuriates my host on Islay, Jim McEwan, a kind of globetrotting teacher and showman for the Bowmore distillery, in the center of Bowmore, the island's largest village. McEwan began as a cooper at the age of fifteen and has performed virtually every job at the distillery, including running it. He generously arranged for me to tour the plants of his rivals; as whisky men on Islay say, the competition is among the off-island owners, not themselves, and they frequently help one another in small and large ways. He also inculcated in me a taste for Bowmore seventeen-year-old, more delicately balanced in citrus, toffee, and floral notes than most Islay whiskies yet with authoritative peatreek, especially at the finish, and lots of salt. McEwan says that a love of salt is inborn on Islay, and that his mother would accentuate each word of "How was school today?" by shaking salt into the soup.

During my visit McEwan was the master of ceremonies at a tasting held annually to benefit a local group that encourages the handicapped to join in island businesses and activities. The managers of all six operational island distilleries spoke briefly, describing different steps of distillation and aging and always emphasizing the people who performed them. "Remember that when you open a bottle, lots of men come out," McEwan told the crowd. "The human being is the most important ingredient."

I won't open a bottle of Bowmore without thinking of McEwan's passion for the product he grew up learning to make, or of the sunny, maternal Christine Logan, who runs the Bowmore visitors' center and knows seemingly every Islay inhabitant. I won't sample a shot of Caol Ila without remembering Donald Macphee's description of how he and his friends would sneak into the distillery at night when they were ten, seeking the warmth of the kilns, the lights of the parking lot (the village streets were unlit), and also empty lemonade bottles, which they would exchange for penny candy -- or his melancholy acceptance of the fact that he is one of the few of his generation to remain on the island.

Most distilleries have Web sites that offer further information; "The Edinburgh Malt Whisky Tour", not company-sponsored, is an especially complete site. In addition to Wilson's Scotch & Water, Michael Jackson has written several fine guides to single-malts. The best gift for a single-malt lover is membership in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, whose American branch can be reached in Sunrise, Florida, at 800-990-1991. The society, headquartered in Edinburgh (www., publishes marvelous newsletters that offer its exclusive bottlings of whiskies taken from single casks, left at their original proof of about 60 percent rather than being watered down to the standard 40 percent, and not filtered; this means that they cloud when water is added but, many people say, have more flavor. A $149 first-time membership fee includes a bottle, which usually sells for $85 and up. At its well-conducted tastings, held regularly in Edinburgh and occasionally in various locales in this country, you can quickly and clearly learn the differences between the four major whisky-producing regions of Scotland -- and also get the invaluable advice to dilute whisky with room-temperature mineral water to make flavors bloom, in the ratio of one third its volume for normal bottled whisky and one half its volume for cask-strength. The personnel at headquarters share my love of peat, and directed me to superb non-Islay smoky whiskies: Talisker, from the Isle of Skye; Brora, from the usually lightly peated Highlands; and Longrow, a special and marvelous whisky from the area around Campbeltown, rich in coal and traditionally a producer of lightly peated whisky.

But I don't have to open one of the bottles I brought home, or browse through the latest witty newsletter from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, to be reminded of Islay. I can just open the big cookie tin I keep in my office -- something I do regularly during the afternoon. On my return I put in it a small bag of barley roasted at Laphroaig, together with the oatcakes and digestive biscuits and "tablet" (something like chalky fudge, and wholly delicious) I had brought back. After two days the tin and everything in it smelled strongly of peat. I removed the bag. Weeks later the tin still reeks. I open it fondly.